A Good Fantasy to Indulge In
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
House of Salt and Sorrows, Erin A. Craig’s debut novel hit the shelves in 2019. The book blends genres, blurring the lines between fantasy, thriller and horror as it sets out to tell the tale of a manor by the sea, 12 sisters, and a dark curse. Annaleigh Thaumas lives at Highmoor, built on cliffs that overlook the sea.
Also at Highmoor are her father, stepmother and sisters – once there were 12 of them, but now only eight remain. You see, there seems to be a curious curse on the girls of Highmoore, they are all fated to have their lives cut short. Each girl’s death has been more tragic than the last; the plague, a fall, a drowning and a slippery plunge.
Now the villagers are whispering, of curses and affronted gods. So much death in the halls of her house has taken a toll on Annaleigh. However, when amidst her grief, she starts seeing a series of ghostly visions, she becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths of her sisters were no accidents.
Meanwhile, her sisters have been sneaking out at night to attend magnificent balls, dancing until dawn in their beautiful dresses and silk slippers, and Annaleigh is torn; should she join them or should she stop them? Who knows what lurks outside the walls of Highmoor, waiting to claim yet another young life? When a mysterious stranger shows up and soon befriends Annaleigh and her sisters, things take an even darker turn, and Annaleigh must race to unravel the peculiarity that has engulfed her family, before it’s too late.
If you hadn’t guessed yet, this is a retelling of the fairy tale, the 12 dancing princesses by the Brothers Grimm. Right off the bat, it’s apparent that the story takes its retelling aspect very seriously. While it is not difficult to keep sight of the fact that this is indeed at its very heart a story of the twelve dancing princesses, the twists and turns the author uses makes the story unique in its own right. So no, you do not need to know the tale of the 12 dancing princesses to enjoy this novel.
I must admit, I found the first few chapters of this book to be quite slow. It was not that the writing in itself was boring, in fact, it’s quite the opposite – Craig is able to create a dark and haunting atmosphere right from the get-go. However, the heavy description and focus on Annaleigh’s inner monologue set a pace that only recovers some 30-40 pages in.
This is not to say that it’s not worth picking up, because once I was in, there was no putting this book down until I was done. As I mentioned earlier on, this story effortlessly blends together three genres, fantasy, thriller and horror. The writing and setting along with some magical elements, combine with the edge-of-your-seat twist and turns and the more ghostly features to create an incredibly atmospheric read.
In reading of the seaside Highmoor, Craig gets you all but smelling the salty hair and feeling the seaspray on your face. All this being said, one of the biggest let-downs of this book was the plot itself. While I would give the reading experience itself a whole a full five stars, just for the atmosphere it creates, the main plot of this book is a classic example of, wonderful idea in theory, lacking in its execution.
I could see where the author wanted to go with this story. She had the buildup, the idea and the setting all wellcrafted. However, the problem lay in tying it all together. There were mysterious murders, creepy hallucinations, gruesome ghosts and ghouls, and an old Victorian-style manor to tie it all together – or so I thought.
The first half of this book showed the promise to do just this. As it turns out, I was wrong and macabre was all there was to it. We only get to the dancing part of the twelve dancing princesses well into the second half of the book. This then attempted to patch into what seemed like a whole other story that was being told in the meantime, and for me, it just didn’t work.
I was already enjoying the dark fantasy and horror elements of the story and the dancing aspect – the main part of the plot, some would say – just didn’t fit as neatly into the main story as I would have liked. I think this could really have worked, had it been introduced into the story a lot earlier, along with several other sub plots that surface far too late into the book to actually make any sense.
By the last few chapters, there was way too much going on and this led to a very rushed and very strange ending. I love world-building and I think that it is one of the most important elements of a good fantasy novel. And, Craig goes above and beyond in this aspect.
However, world-building alone is not enough to tell a story, which is what soon became apparent in this novel. Craig’s focus on the world and atmosphere that House of Salt and Sorrows was set in took her attention away from the story she was trying to tell, and ultimately that became the stories most significant shortcoming. I must stop here to wrap this up with a big however.
If you are trash for retellings of fairytales like I am, you will want to pick this up. Yes, there are better retellings out there, but there are also worse. House of Salt and Sorrows sets a creepy and haunting atmosphere unlike any other retelling I’ve read, except perhaps Drown by Junot Diaz (yes, definitely read that one) and the reading experience alone is worth the evening you’ll spend reading it. If you aren’t big on retellings and are just looking for a young adult good fantasy to indulge in, this may not be your cup of tea.